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Sun 25 May 2008 11:55 PM

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Lebanon elects president after months of turmoil

Former army chief appeals for national unity as he is sworn in after long-delayed vote.

Lebanon's new president Michel Sleiman appealed for unity as he was sworn in on Sunday in a first step towards defusing a political feud that threatened to plunge the nation into a new civil war.

"Let us unite... and work towards a solid reconciliation," the former army chief said after being elected by parliament. "We have paid dearly for our national unity. Let us preserve it hand-in-hand."

Celebratory shots were fired into the air and cars horns hooted as crowds of people, cheering and waving Lebanese flags, poured into the streets of Beirut and Sleiman's hometown of Amsheet.

The election was hailed by US President George W. Bush who has given his staunch backing to the Sunni-led government in its 18-month standoff with the mainly Shiite Muslim Hezbollah-led opposition.

Sleiman was elected by 118 votes in a much-delayed parliament session attended by Arab and Western dignitaries that followed a deal hammered out Wednesday in Qatar between the rival Lebanese politicians.

"This is a historic moment," said parliament speaker Nabih Berri. "I ask God to help you succeed in steering the Lebanese ship to a safe haven... today no-one in the world can turn Lebanon into a killing field."

The main challenge for Sleiman, 59, will be to impose himself as a neutral figure and reconcile the Western-backed ruling coalition and the opposition, which is supported by Iran and Syria.

After Sleiman was sworn in, the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora resigned in line with the constitution but will stay on in a caretaker role.

Bickering between the two camps had left the presidency vacant since pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud's term ended in November. Nineteen previous attempts to get lawmakers together to elect a successor failed.

On Wednesday, the rivals finally agreed to elect Sleiman, form a national unity government in which the opposition has veto power and draft a new electoral law for a parliamentary election due next year.

The accord came after 65 people were killed in running street battles this month between Hezbollah fighters and their allies and pro-government forces.

It was the deadliest sectarian violence since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war and threatened to ignite an all-out conflict, as Hezbollah staged a spectacular takeover of mainly Sunni Muslim west Beirut.

Sleiman said Lebanon's weapons should only be directed at the enemy and not elsewhere.

He also said he would seek friendly relations with Syria, Lebanon's former powerbroker which has no formal diplomatic ties with its smaller neighbour.

Bush said he looked forward to "an era of political reconciliation" in Lebanon and to working with Sleiman.

"I am confident that Lebanon has chosen a leader committed to protecting its sovereignty, extending the government's authority over all of Lebanon, and upholding Lebanon's international obligations under UN Security Council resolutions."

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr, whose country like Syria has been accused by the US of stoking the crisis, welcomed the vote.

"Attaining calm and security in this country is attaining calm and security on the level of the region as a whole," said Manouchehr, who watched the proceedings along with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Syria - also key players in Lebanon.

Of the 127 MPs who voted, six cast blank ballots and several others voted for other politicians, including slain ex-premier Rafiq Hariri and several MPs killed since 2005.

Many Lebanese also voiced cautious hope the vote will restore stability in a nation that has endured civil conflict, political crises and a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian figures.

"I have a lot of hope in this election," said Aida Aoun. "But then again we have seen so many others get elected and then deceive us."

In nearly 10 years at the helm of the army, Sleiman managed to stay out of the political storm. But as president - a position reserved for a Maronite Christian under Lebanon's multi-confessional system - he will have to tread a fine line to keep the peace with the same neutrality.

Lebanon has been mired in political turmoil since November 2006 when six pro-Syrian opposition ministers quit the cabinet in a bid to gain a greater voice.

Sleiman is the third army chief to become president after Fouad Chehab in 1958-1964 and Lahoud, who was elected in 1998 but whose term was controversially extended by three years under a Syrian-inspired constitutional amendment in 2004.